Boot Camp For Civil Disobedience

Don Muller is learning how to take the fight over logging straight into the woods.

Deep in the Bitterroot Mountains of southwestern Montana, a giant solar panel powers a weeklong boot camp for the civilly disobedient, where training harnesses hang from trees and directories point students to classes on road blockades, tree sitting and forest navigation.

Muller, of Sitka, Alaska, is one of about 70 environmental activists learning the work of gumming up public land logging operations - everything from how to safely tree-sit to how to help press appeals that stymie federal agencies.

"You deal with radical situations in radical ways," Muller said during a break from training. "The Bush administration has gone too far in so many ways."

This "boot camp," sponsored by Greenpeace and the National Forest Protection Alliance, is billed as an empowering tool for environmentalists or anyone else opposed to the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests" initiative.

The administration says the goal of the initiative is to speed the removal of trees and brush from 190 million acres of forests overgrown and prone to major fires as result of a century of aggressive fire suppression.

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth were in Montana just last week, asking western governors to support the initiative, which they say will make forests healthier and provide timber jobs.

Environmentalists say the plan undercuts citizen involvement and hands millions of acres of timber over to the logging industry.

Activists such as Muller believe the techniques they're learning will not only help stall logging plans but will be effective in drawing attention to their cause.

"Nonviolent civil disobedience is as American as apple pie and the flag," Muller said. "I can't say I'm not afraid, but I'm willing to put my body in the way."

The logging industry, though, sees the camp as a wedge, driving the environmentalists and the initiative supporters even further apart.

"All it does is divert the attention from where we really need to resolve the issues," said Julia Altemus of the Montana Logging Association.

During the few days Muller has been here, he has learned the basics of using ropes and harnesses to climb trees and lock-in for extended periods to get in the way of timber sales. He is also learning how to block roads, help organize local campaigns to influence U.S. Forest Service policy and record forest habitat conditions.

The Forest Service doesn't object to the boot camp being held on agency land.

"It's why we live in America. We support people's rights to express their views in non-threatening and nonviolent activities," said Bitterroot forest spokeswoman Dixie Dies.

The Bitterroot was chosen for the camp because environmentalists say logging plans here threaten one of the nation's largest forests. Greenpeace said it is using the exercise to help launch a late-summer campaign against logging plans in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

"The Tongass is going to be one of our center stages," said Scott Paul, a Greenpeace forest campaign coordinator based in Washington, D.C.

Paul emphasized the training focuses on nonviolent protest.

"I have heard zero people here advocating monkey-wrenching or property damage," he said.

But he said nearly all the participants are ready to "subject themselves to arrest for a higher cause."

The types of activities planned by the environmentalists can result in serious charges.

A court recently handed down $10,000 fines to a pair of tree sitters and ordered them to pay restitution to a logging company and the Forest Service, said Dale Brandeberry, Forest Service law enforcement captain for southwest Montana.

Paul predicted the Bush forest plan will prompt even "mild" environmental groups to take more drastic measures. He thinks tree-sitting and road blockades are going to become more common.

"You are going to see the radicalization of the environmental community over this," he said.

By Matt Gouras

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